It all happened so fast, a veritable whirlwind. As minor league camp officially opened on Monday, the final few players arrived at the complex, and aside from clubhouse and fan access restrictions and instructions to be careful, life proceeded as normal. That Wednesday, however, Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 prior to a game between the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder, prompting the indefinite suspension of the NBA season. On Friday morning management texted players not to report to the field, prompting many to suspect what was coming next.
The official word came Saturday morning: spring training was canceled, and the minor league complexes were closed. As quickly as it had ended, the offseason had begun.
The life of a minor league ballplayer is fraught with uncertainty, with poor pay and lots of travel. Many work over the winter to make ends meet, their time with the team serving not as a paying job as much as an investment. A risky one at that, for while it pays dividends for those who actually get the call to the show, for the overwhelming majority, the dream dies well before that call even becomes a possibility.
And that’s even when things are normal. Factor in a global pandemic, and that throws yet another curveball into the arduous task of making the major leagues, as both Andres and Dan have talked about in recent weeks. Now, instead of playing games and furthering their careers, players are back at their homes, using whatever resources are at their disposal to keep themselves ready and in shape for when baseball returns.
Fortunately, they do have a major ally at their backs — their coaches and training staff. Glen Ridge, NJ native Declan Cronin, a 22-year-old pitcher in the Chicago White Sox system, did nothing but praise the efforts of his affiliate’s coaching staff. They developed individualized programs meant to keep players in a holding pattern until at least the end of April, the earliest, albeit unlikely, first day of spring training. They have remained in near-constant contact with the players, personally tailoring their workout routines to the player’s needs and the resources available to them.
Even so, the longer that baseball is shutdown, the greater the impact that the spectrum of resource disparities will have on player development. Although many players are attempting to use the time to hone their skills — develop a new slider, adjust their batting stance, etc. — not everybody has the same ability to continue training.
For example, players who live in big cities will have more trouble finding a place to have a catch, as many parks throughout the country have been closed to facilitate social distancing practices. Hitters, furthermore, will certainly be at an even further disadvantage than pitchers, as batting practice against live pitching is pretty much impossible at the moment (this is why most of the players remaining at the Yankees spring training complex have been hitters). When play resumes, these players will be at a disadvantage compared to those able to continue training pretty much unchanged.
Such adversity is par for the course among the minor leaguers, who are “used to the grind and making due with less than ideal circumstances,” to borrow Cronin’s words. And so they work, day in and day out, to be ready for when that phone call comes with the words that everybody dreams of hearing:
“Baseball is back.”